Post-tsunami carsharing in Miyagi

(Pre- and post-tsunami Ishinomaki City, near the Arahama Primary School which was the only building standing for miles around)

Carsharing is usually discussed as offering the possibility to not need to own a vehicle and just use the car when necessary. But in post-disaster Ishinomaki City in Northern Japan where the tsunami washed away over 60,000 vehicles, carsharing has a different meaning. After speaking with a number of locals who were relocated to a new estate after losing their homes and vehicles, the community carsharing program has allowed the elderly to regain the freedom to get around town to the shops, hospitals etc, while money is still scarce and their ability to drive is becoming more and more limited.

Many of the rehoused elderly residents I spoke with today at the Yoshino Restoration Public Housing Estate didn’t feel comfortable driving themselves, even one who did own his own vehicle. Asking them whether a fully automated vehicle would help them get from A to B, the answer was divided: some couldn’t wait, some were uncomfortable getting into an automated vehicle. Some bus services are running again but they don’t answer the needs of these residents, and as we’ve seen before it’s going to be difficult to run a multitude of bus services economically over the longer term. In summary, residents still have a hard time getting around town on a day-to-day basis.

By a stroke of luck, a local volunteer agreed to use a four-seater electric vehicle from the local carsharing association and ferry residents to and from their destinations when needed. The estate has a charging station powered both by the grid and by 4kw-worth of solar panels on the roof. Residents would only pay for vehicle upkeep at a flat rate of $1/km driven, and would share rides as much as possible to reduce costs. A recurring upkeep fee of ca $500 would be pooled together by the community of residents interested in making use of the service, and the same community would sit down regularly to calculate how much the vehicle was used, any necessary repairs to the vehicle to be paid for from the upkeep fee, and whether the fee needed topping up. If there was too much money left over for any particular period, the kitty would typically be used for day trips further afield or organizing mini-events.

This setup naturally relies on a volunteer driver who cannot be paid directly for his services, to not fall foul of the unregistered (so-called “shirotaku”) taxi driver laws. But as he’s an administrator of the community carsharing program, he gets a nominal salary as do other administrator-designates who take care of other aspects of the program such as accounting/finance, legal, event organizing and so on. And this model could easily be extended further.

For example:

  • To an fully automated driving scenario where there is no driver and the only people being paid are administrator-designates of the system.
  • Or such a system could rotate administrator-drivers on a semi-permanent basis ensuring a steady stream of drivers in case someone is sick/on holiday.
  • The system could also be automated via smartphone/regular home phone, with simple speech-to-text conversion allowing non-tech-savvy users to just call a freedial number and ask for the vehicle to be made available at a particular time and day. Instead of calling the driver’s mobile phone and making arrangements on ad-hoc basis.
  • A simple tracking device/wearable could be attached to the dashboard of the vehicle and monitor the kilometerage driven, then report it back to the system servers when in the vicinity of the building’s wifi. No need for extra displays, tablets or HMI development. This would replace the current manual input of km
  • Although expensive, installing lidar, radar and other sensors to map the routes and uploading this information to the cloud via wifi would allow for limited advanced driver assistance/drive automation on the most used routes, leading to less stress on the driver.

So while embryonic, putting micro-communities such as this project at the center of mobility services allows local authorities to see real on-demand needs, and allows local communities to work it out without the need for additional taxes. Speaking to officials at Ishinomaki City, they told me that the main mobility lines will continue to be run by the city (trains, high-volume buses etc) while the local branches off that network into the various localities would ideally be augmented by other schemes such as carsharing. It will be interesting to look into how this model can travel outside of Ishinomaki, and into other regions possibly suffering from similar mobility issues but without the urgency of a natural disaster.